Haley Nowak just knew she would eventually become a cross country runner like her older sister, Juliet.
“When I was younger, I would watch her cross country meets,” said Nowak, now a freshman at Secaucus High School. “I thought it was all pretty cool. I liked seeing all the runners. I liked the scenery and the colors. So I knew that I wanted to run.”
It didn’t hurt having an older sister who ran.
“Juliet did have an influence on me,” Nowak said. “We did run a couple of times together. We tried to pace ourselves to stay together. I just ran for the enjoyment of it. I also ran in middle school, but I had no idea if I was going to be good or bad.”
But veteran Secaucus head cross country coach Stan Fryczynski certainly knew. After coaching for nearly five decades, Fryczynski has somewhat of an idea when he’s getting a good one.
“I knew about her,” Fryczynski said. “I knew she was coming out for the team. I knew that she wanted to run. I also knew that she was a swimmer, so I knew that she was a strong kid who could handle the workouts.”
It didn’t take long to see that Nowak was going to become something special. Like try her very first race running for Secaucus.
“I knew from the first race [the Back to the Mountain Challenge at Garret Mountain Reserve in Woodland Park] that she was very good,” Fryczynski said. “She did the entire summer with us, so I knew she was in good shape. I knew she was a good athlete. I wasn’t sure how fast she would progress, but I knew she had potential.”
After that first race, Nowak also believed in herself.
“When I ran my first freshman meet, it gave me a little bit of confidence,” Nowak said. “Coach Fryczynski then put me in a couple of varsity races. Once I started doing better, it gave me the confidence that I could compete with the varsity. Coach Fryczynski’s workouts are built to help us get better. Throughout the season, it was only natural that I would improve.”
“I think the previous races prepared me to run against the upperclassmen,” Nowak said. “I knew that I could run with the better runners.”
Fryczynski said that early season strategy kept Nowak fresh for the championship meets.
“We didn’t run her a lot early,” Fryczynski said. “I wanted to get her some freshman races in first and she dominated those races. I figured if she could dominate the freshman races, then she could handle the varsity.”
Nowak then burst onto the scene with a thrilling victory at the North Hudson Championships on Oct. 25, a race that Nowak won in 20:12.80.
“I think she broke out of her shell at the North Hudson meet,” Fryczynski said. “She ran a fantastic race that day.”
At the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships at Bayonne County Park Nov. 2, Nowak was fourth behind champion Maria Laverde of Kearny and Kayla Sullivan and Suhayla Johnson of St. Dominic Academy, crossing the line in a stellar 19:53.30.
“She ran a great race that day,” Fryczynski said. “I didn’t want her to get all nervous, but I told her that she could win the state sectional.”
Nowak was prepared to achieve a slice of history after what transpired recently at the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championships at Greystone Park in Morris Plains.
On Nov. 9, Nowak went out with the lead pack and stayed there for the entire race, a pack that included Weehawken junior Delaney Rice, a former Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week who finished second in the same race to Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year Claire Chapeau of McNair Academic last year.
“I knew I was running against other good runners,” Nowak said. “I just wanted to go out and see what I could do. I wanted to give it my best and see what happens.”
Fryczynski took his team to Greystone twice to prepare for the state sectionals.
“I wanted to get up there and make them comfortable with the course,” Fryczynski said. “And yes, I told her that she could possibly win the race.”
“I was a little nervous to be honest,” Nowak said. “It was also a little cold. But once I started running, I didn’t notice anything.”
Except that she was in front.
Nowak crossed the finish line first in 20:09, some three seconds ahead of Rice in second and Safaa Merghoub of McNair in third.
“Haley and Rice were neck and neck and then Haley pulled away in the straight away,” Fryczynski said. “She was strong.”
And in the process, Nowak became the first girl ever from Secaucus to ever capture a NJSIAA state sectional championship.
For her efforts, Nowak has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Nowak had no idea that she was creating history.
“Some people told me that, but I didn’t know,” Nowak said. “That’s pretty crazy. It’s not something that I expected to happen. I guess it’s pretty special.”
That’s an understatement.
“We’ve had dozens in the top 10 and had a few finish second,” Fryczynski said. “But she’s the first one to win it. It’s really special.”
And Nowak’s only a freshman, which is simply amazing.
“I know her best running is ahead of her,” Fryczynski said. “There’s a lot left to be seen with her. It’s nice to know that she’s a freshman, but we have to be careful with her. She has a lot of talent, the kind of talent that we don’t see here every day. She has some height in her and has a nice stride. She’s just a sweet girl and I’m glad we have her. She also listens to what we have to say.”
Nowak is keeping the state sectional title in stride. She’s not getting a big head that sometimes comes with being a champion.
“I just hope that I continue to improve,” Nowak said. “I think this is only going to help me grow and become a better runner.”
Nowak didn’t even rub it into her sister, who is currently a junior at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“I won’t say anything to Juliet,” Nowak said with a little laugh.
And now, it’s on to Holmdel and the overall Group I championships this weekend and possibly a berth in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions in two weeks. One never knows.
“I just want to give it my best shot,” Nowak said. “But yeah, being a champion like this really helps.” – Jim Hague